The tropical heat beat down on me like fire as I sat and waited with Michael. We were on the island of Siberut in the far-flung Mentawai archipelago, which sits about 100 miles west of Sumatra, Indonesia. With us was Fidel, our unusually tall Indonesia surf guide with long, salty hair, and Nadine, a stunning English girl who could have easily graced the covers of a fashion magazine. Traveling alone, she joined our group after meeting us a few hours earlier on the fast boat we took from Padang, a four-hour journey across a sea so choppy it would throw us from our seats. We were headed to a tiny island called Nyang Nyang, which is surrounded by world-class surf breaks — the holy grail of surfing for Michael and his best buddy, John, who had joined us in Indonesia less than 12 hours ago after traveling halfway across the world from San Francisco. The only problem was that John was nowhere to be found.
Siberut was the last stop where we would have access to convenience stores and ATMs, so we stocked up on the essentials: soap, toilet paper, and Bintangs, the ubiquitous beer of Indonesia. We were just about to hop on a smaller boat bound for Nyang Nyang when John said he wanted to pull out some cash from the ATM. He offered a local a handful of rupiahs to borrow his motorbike and told us he would be back in five minutes. That was over an hour ago.
Siberut is the biggest island in the Mentawais but it’s not that big. There’s no way he could have gotten lost. Another 30 minutes passed and still no sign of John. We starting walking in the direction in which he sped off, attempting to retrace his steps, when a young Indonesian man suddenly came running up to us in a panic. He didn’t really speak English, but managed to get out the words: “Friend. Motorbike. Crash. BLOOD. POLICE.”
‘Blood’ is the second worst word to hear associated with your friend when you’re on a remote island in a foreign country. ‘Police’ is the first. It turns out, an overzealous John lost control of the motorbike and plowed into an elderly lady. She was fine except for some minor bumps and bruises, but the motorbike, unfortunately, was not. An Indonesian police report was filed and John had to pay a hefty sum of about $80 USD – which doesn’t seem like much by American standards but it could have easily lasted him the entire trip.
With John’s fine paid, we piled into the small, rickety boat that would take us the rest of the way to the island. Sitting on makeshift pieces of plywood with dead fish beneath our feet, we somehow managed to fit the four of us, Fidel, the boat driver, all of our backpacks, supplies, and four surfboards on this tiny maritime structure. If any of us made even a slight movement, the boat would rock to one side or the other as if we were going to capsize. The boat drive cranked the motor – which sounded like it was on its last life – and we were on our way to Nyang Nyang.
First, we navigated through a labyrinth of gorgeous mangroves. The midday sun was in full force so we cracked a beer in an attempt to stay cool. We were told the journey would take less than an hour, but it was that long before we even came to the end of the mangroves, our boat shooting into the beautiful open ocean with water as turquoise as I have ever seen. Michael and John became giddy as Fidel started to point out all the legendary surf spots that break deep in the Indian Ocean: A-Frames, Four Bobs, Rifles, and Bank Vaults, the Ments’ most notoriously heavy right. Because of its location in the Indian Ocean, the Mentawais are hit by swell after swell, making it one of the most consistent places to surf in the world. When you combine that with the region’s sheer volume of surf spots and remote location, it’s easy to see why The Mentawais are a premier surf destination for surfers looking to get away from it all. Nadine and I were just along for the ride.
We sped by countless uninhabited islands before we made it to Nyang Nyang, pulling to shore between the surf spots of Beng Bengs and E-Bay.
The sparsely-populated island had no roads or cars, and the landscape was comprised of thick rainforest. Fidel immediately warned us to make noise as we walked through the undergrowth to scare off any pythons – he said he once had to kill a 20-footer with a machete. He also pointed our where to run in the event of a tsunami – a gentle reminder of the raw power of nature. We excitedly grabbed our stuff and started trekking through the rainforest.
Because few hotels and resorts exists in the region, there are essentially two ways to go about planning a surf trip to the Mentawais. The first is to book a private charter on a luxurious boat, complete with a chef, comfortable bed, hot water, air conditioning, and all the Bintangs you can drink. This starts at about $5,000 per person for a two-week trip, and you can cruise around to any surf spot you like, without interacting with the locals or even stepping foot on dry land. The other option is to stay in a surf camp on an island like Nyang Nyang. Some surf camps can be relatively nice, but most of them offer only the basics: a bed with a mosquito net in a shared room (no sheets or blankets), community bathroom without hot water, a small fan, and three basic meals per day, consisting mostly of local Indonesia food – nasi goreng, bland potatoes, and the catch of the day, if you’re lucky. Electricity at these surf camps only runs from sunset to sunrise, and there are no mirrors, flushable toilets, or locks on your bedroom door (if you even had a door). Prices for surf camps vary depending on the amenities, but some are as little as $15 per night. As nice as it would have been to cruise around the Mentawais on a private charter, we were currently enjoying “funemployment”, so $15 per night was about what we could afford.
Although we were definitely roughing it, staying in a surf camp allowed us to see the raw, authentic side of this forgotten part of the world, as well as the natives who call it home. It wasn’t long before this place felt like home to us as well.
The entire time we were on the island, time stood still.
No cell reception, no email, no social media; just white sand, palm trees, and an ocean as warm as bathwater. Each morning, we would wake up to the shrill crow of roosters and sip on watery coffee as the guys decided where to go for their morning surf session. There were plenty of surf spots within walking distance of camp – the entire island could be circumnavigated by foot in less than an hour – but sometimes we would take a boat to offshore breaks or different islands altogether, many of which were uninhabited. My favorite was Bikini Bottom, a tiny sandbank dreams are made of, the definition of terra incognita. No one back home could even imagine where we were or how to find us, and going off the map felt incredibly freeing.
Much like its climate, surf in the Mentawais is unforgiving, powered by the merciless energy of the Indian Ocean. Not only do the waves get enormous, but every break sits over razor-sharp coral reefs, many of which are tauntingly shallow. Walking around the island, we’d see guys with nasty reef cuts, staph infections, even head bandages. There are no doctors or hospitals anywhere close to the island, and the fast boat only departs from Siberut to Padang twice a week, so if you get seriously hurt, you’re screwed. “They normally have to airlift one or two guys out of here every year,” said a burley Australian named Gavin, who has been coming to the Mentawais for over a decade. Speaking of injuries, there was a young boy from the island who didn’t know any English but liked to hang around our surf camp. He couldn’t have been older than ten or eleven, but he would chain smoke cigarettes and surf the gnarliest waves with the Australians. One day, he wiped out and got a reef cut that was at least 4 cm deep, but he didn’t even wince. Wounds like that have a tendency to fester in damp, humid environments like the Mentawais, and it’s not like he could pick up some Neosporin at CVS. Michael did his best to help the kid clean up his wound, but I was seriously scared it would turn into a deadly infection. A few days later, the kid was out there getting barreled again at E-Bay like nothing had happened.
We lazed the days away lounging on hammocks outside our surf camp – reading, napping, or observing the Indonesian families who passed by as they went about their daily routines. Friendly grinning from ear to ear, the women donned hats made from palm leaves, their skin leathery from a life in the rainforest, while boys as young as five handled machetes like a pro. Kids could effortlessly shimmy up a 40-foot tree to cut down a coconut for an afternoon treat. Sometimes a soccer game would break out in front of camp, or an unaccompanied, curious toddler would happily follow us through the rainforest. In stark contrast to the businessmen of Jakarta and the tour guides of Bali, the Mentawai people survived as hunter-gatherers, living in bamboo structures called “umas” that provided shelter for Indonesia’s harsh tropical climate. Most of the natives on Nyang Nyang had likely never left, and without access to TVs or internet, this island was their entire world. I couldn’t help but wonder what they thought of us – outsiders – who had come to their island wearing bikinis and board shorts.
I also wondered why the natives had been so slow to capitalize on the growing tourist industry they now had on their small island, fueled by the developed world’s search for waves, and a deep desire to discover the unknown. Like I said before, there were no convenience stores on the island. There were also no restaurants. If anyone on the island opened a place where travelers could buy essential items or western food, they would no doubt make a killing. But Fidel told me that the Mentawai people, like the vast majority of Indonesians, simply lack the business acumen, or even the drive, to take advantage of such a lucrative opportunity. He also pointed at that because the Mentawais were getting busier and busier every year, it was essential for the locals to adapt to the growth while at the same time maintaining a balance in order to avoid the overdevelopment and commercialization that plagued the nearby island of Bali, where the beaches are essentially giant trashcans and the resorts are all foreign-owned. In recent years, a few larger resorts such as Kandui and Macaronis had opened in the Mentawais, and some people feared for the effect this would have on the local culture, not to mention the natural beauty. After all, the beaches are clean. The surfing isn’t overcrowded. And there are minimal signs of influence from the west. While not without its benefits, development threatens all of this.
Leaving the Mentawais was sad and surreal, mostly because I knew the next time I’m there it won’t be the same. For now, the Mentawais are a well-kept secret paradise deep in the Indian Ocean, but secrets like that don’t stay secret for long.